[Flower logo of the Medieval History Course] St. Francis (1181-1126)

Kenneth Clark: Civilization [Romance and Reality 1954-3216, 13'00]
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1126)

In the years when the north portal of Chartres was being decorated, a rich young dandy named Freancesco Bernadone suffered a change of heart. He was, and always remained, the most courteous of men. He was deeply influenced by French ideals of chivalry. And one day, when he had fitted himself up in his best clothes in preparation for some chivalrous campaign he met a poor gentleman whose needs seemed to be greater than his own, and gave him his cloak. That night he dreamed that he should rebuild the Celestial City.

Later, he gave away his possessions so liberally that his father, who was a rich businessman in the Italian town of Assisi, decided to disown him. Whereupon Francesco took off his remaining clothes and said that he would possess nothing, absolutely nothing. The Bishop of Assisi hid his nakedness and afterwards gave him a cloak and Francesco went off into the woods, singing a French song.

The next three years he spent in abject poverty looking after lepers, who were very much in evidence in the Middle Ages and rebuilding with his own hands abandoned churches. In all his actons, he took the words of the Gospels literally. And he translated them into the language of chivalric poetry. He said that he had taken poverty for his lady. And when he achieved some still more drastic act of self-denial, he said that it was to do her a courtesy. It was partly because he saw that wealth corrupts and is the cause of war, but partly because he felt that it was discourteous to be in the company of anyone poorer than oneself.

I've so far illustrated the story of St. Francis by the work of the Sienese painter Sassetta because although he painted so much later the chivalric Gothic tradition lingered on in Siena as nowhere else in Italy and gave to Sassetta's springtly images a lyric, even a visionary quality, more Franciscan than the ponderous images of Giotto.

But I must now change to Giotto, not only because he lived 150 years earlier than Sassetta, that's to say much nearer the time of St. Francis, but because he was chosen to decorate the great church where I'm now standing. The Church of St. Francis, built very shortly after his death. How many of these frescoes are really by Giotto's own hand is an open question. Modern English scholars have taken it into their heads to heads to say that Giotto practically never went to Assisi at all, Italian scholars think that he painted nearly all of them. I'm inclined to think that Giotto was one of those artists, like Raphael, who attached much more importance to invention than to execution. He was quite prepared to let his pupils - there must have been a small army of pupils - carry out his ideas.

The one here above my head I am pretty sure he painted himself because they have all his weight and dramatic power. Where he seems to me to fall short is in his actual image of the saint. It's too grave and commanding. It has none of that sprightliness, almost - that sense of joy which St. Francis valued almost as much as courtesy itself. Incidentally, we don't know what St. Francis looked like. The best known early painting is attributed to Cimabue. It looks quite convincing, but I'm afraid that it's entirely repainted, and only shows us what the 19th century thought St. Francis ought to have looked like.

From the first, everyone recognised that St. Francis was a religious genius, the greatest, I believe, that Europe has ever produced. Although he was only a layman, the Pope gave him permission to found an order, here at Assisi.

St. Francis died in 1226 at the age of 43, worn out by his austerities. On his deathbed, he had asked forgiveness of 'poor brother donkey, my body' for the hardships he had made it suffer. He had seen his order go from a group of humble companions and become a great institution, a power in church politics. And at a certain point, he had quite naturally and simply relinquished control. He knew that he was no administrator.

Within two years, only two years of his death, he was canonised and his companions began to build this great church to his memory. A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, also an incredible piece of engineering.

Two churches, one on top of the other, a huge monastery, all built on arcades and of such hard stone that it's almost impossible to believe that it's original 13th-century work. I think it must have been built by a castle architect. It was decorated by all the chief Italian painters of the 13th and 14th centuries, from Cimabue onwards, so that it has become the richest and most evocative church in Italy.

A strange memorial to the little poor man whose favourite saying was, 'Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nest, but he Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.'

Of course, St. Francis's cult of poverty couldn't survive him. It didn't even last his lifetime. It was officially rejected by the Church because the Church had already become part of the international banking system that originated in the 13th century. Those of St. Francis's disciples who clung to his doctrine of poverty, called Fraticelli, were denounced as heretics and burnt at the stake. And for 700 years, capitalism has continued to grow to its present monstrous proportions. It may seem that St. Francis has had no influence at all. Even those humane reformers of the 19th century who sometimes invoked him, did'nt wish to exalt or sanctify poverty but to abolish it.

And yet, his belief that in order to free the spirit we must shed our earthly possessions, is the belief that all great religions have in common - East and West. Almost without exception. And by enacting that truth, with such simplicity and grace, he made it a part of European consciousness. And ideal to which, however impossible it may be in practice, the finest spirits will always return. And, by freeing himself from the pull of possessions, St. Francis achieved a stat of mind, which has been of great value to us. I mean his belief in the unity of creation and the possibility of universal love. It was only because he possessed nothing that St. Francis could feel sincerely a brotherhood with all created things. Not only living creatures, like Brother Pig, but Brother Fire and Sister Wind. This philosophy inspired his hymn to the unity of creation, known as the Canticle Of The Sun. It's expressed with irresistible naivety in a collection of legends known as the Fioretti - the little flowers. Not many people can make their way through the polemics of Abelard or the definitions of St. Thomas Aquinas, but everyone can enjoy these holy folk tales which, after all, may not be completely untrue. They are, in contemporary jargon, amongst the first examples of popular communication. At any rate, since the Sermon on the Mount. And they tell us, for instance, how St. Francis persuaded a fierce wolf that terrified the people of Gubbio, to make a pact by which, in return for regular meals, he will leave the citizens alone. 'Give me your paw,' said St. Francis. And the wolf gave his paw. Most famous of all, of course, is the sermon to the birds. Those creatures which, as I've said, seemed to the Gothic mind singularly privileged. Seven centuries haven't impaired the naive beauty of that episode.

St. Francis is a figure of the pure Gothic time. The age of Crusades and castles and the great cathedrals. Although he put it to strange and barbarous uses, he belonged to the age of chivalry. Well, however much one loves that world. I think it remains for us infinitely strange and remote. It's as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory. And in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.